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Seymour: An Introduction – Review

 
 
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Release Date: 27 September 2014 [USA]
 
Director: Ethan Hawke
 
Writer: N/A - Ethan Hawke Producer
 
Cast: Seymour Bernstein - Jiyang Chen - Ethan Hawke
 


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Posted April 8, 2015 by

 
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Seymour: An Introduction Review:

I suppose it is possible, in the way that teenage boys have oft been torn between Betty and Veronica, to like Ethan Hawke’s new documentary Seymour: An Introduction and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash equally. But I do not suffer from the Archie complex. To me, there is a clear winner.

Hawke’s documentary is certainly good, and fans of classical piano will find much of what is discussed fascinating, and much of what is heard joyous. But this profile of Seymour Bernstein is sloppy in ways that the real-life Seymour would not tolerate from his students. Hawke makes decisions, both large and small throughout, that don’t seem to get the most out of his subject.

Seymour Bernstein retired from a successful performing career largely due to anxiety. But his passion for music, and for the craft of piano, has never dimmed. He transitioned into teaching, and from the array of current and former students we see in the movie, he has a very special gift as an educator. He is the type of mentor anyone would desire. A kind, compassionate expert, who repeats his lesson as many times as the student needs to hear them without ever becoming bullying or condescending. In that regard, he is the polar opposite of Terence Fletcher, the fictional creation of Chazelle and actor J.K. Simmons in 2014’s Whiplash. Fletcher is satanic, and drives his disciples past their breaking points in order to achieve greatness.

One of Hawke’s challenges is to take a real-life, gentle man, and create a story which is as compelling as the one Chazelle tells in Whiplash. When he allows Seymour to focus on craft, he largely succeeds. There are some fascinating sequences from a master class he teaches in which we see how he dissects a piece of music and communicates the vital information to his students. There are other sections in which he discusses craft with fellow pianists, critics and students that always yield some insight.

However, there are other sections in which Seymour broadens his scope, discussing how music and life are intertwined. A statement or two like this can go a long way in opening up a narrow topic. But Hawke is clearly so enamored by Seymour and his positive approach to life and art, that he lets these sections go on and on until they border on platitudinous. I was reminded at times of Martin Bergmann’s philosopher in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. As Allen well knew, a little philosophy goes a long way in a movie.

Hawke doesn’t seem to have a firm handle on structure. Though loosely built around a return to performance for Seymour (Hawke staged a recital in which the 85-year old Bernstein could both perform and teach), the performance itself is somewhat understated. We don’t even see Seymour play very much because as he begins, we cut to a montage of his students also performing. I understand the thematic concept behind this decision, but it is somewhat of a dramatic letdown. After that sequence, we actually hear from some of those students, with whom we have seen Seymour working throughout the movie. What they have to say is intriguing, and it’s a shame that we didn’t get to hear from them earlier. All in all, the structure meanders in a manner similar to 2014’s 20,000 Days on Earth, about musician Nick Cave. I suspect if you were already a fan of Cave’s, or of Bernstein’s, this structure would not bother you very much. But I’m not convinced it serves a general audience as successfully.

There are other odd choices from Hawke. In the opening sequence, Seymour describes the technical difficulty of a piece he is playing, in which he must open his hand early in preparation for a difficult passage. We see him work on it several times, but Hawke never shows us his hand. Similarly, toward the end, while playing Schumann, Seymour describes a similar challenge for the left hand. Again, we don’t get to see the hand execute the maneuver. These may be small moments, but they hurt our engagement. A much bigger misstep is Hawke’s decision to include himself in the movie. Hawke describes his personal relationship with Seymour and how the gentle teacher helped him deal with his own professional disquiet. This doesn’t really go anywhere, and it tends to pull attention away from the subject of the film. Hawke says at one point that he has come to realize the fame associated with celebrity is meaningless. I suspect that point would have been stronger had he not been one of the main characters in the film.

In the end, at 81 minutes, Seymour: An Introduction can feel a little long. Fortunately, Seymour Bernstein is the kind of man you wouldn’t mind wasting a little time with. And he does play some awfully beautiful music to pass the time.

 

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Jonathan Eig
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